CRM: When C stands for citizen

call center

The image of an office full of call-center employees wearing headsets to communicate with customers is a common association for customer relationship management, but it is woefully outdated. (Stock photo)

The idea that government should run like a business has been repeated to the point of becoming a cliché, but the need for efficiency and improved customer service is real. And like any good business, agencies must understand their customers in order to succeed, and they are increasingly looking to technology to better manage those relationships.

Customer relationship management refers to the interaction between producer and consumer. The hallmark image of CRM in action is a call center that customers contact to complain, compliment or inquire. The organization uses data about those calls to not only help customers but also to inform and refine its broader business operations.

Although an office full of employees wearing headsets to communicate with customers is a familiar concept, it is a woefully outdated image for today's CRM. Strategy and services that combine social media, big data and personalized Web accounts are becoming more prevalent throughout the federal government. In fact, the widespread use of social media has given way to a new type of CRM known as social relationship management. Agencies can monitor the social discourse on government-related topics rather than waiting for individuals to contact them.

And cloud computing has opened the door for vendors such as Oracle, Microsoft, Salesforce.com and Deltek to offer CRM services to agencies at a lower cost.

Federal CRM efforts are as varied as the agencies deploying them. The Department of Veterans Affairs uses Blue Button to enable veterans to access their health records electronically, and VA also has a "veterans relationship management" system called 21st Century-One Vet. The Justice Department manages "customers" currently in litigation, while Citizenship and Immigration Services is using Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform to enhance the E-Verify program. And CRM is a central topic on the agenda for the Defense Information Systems Agency's Enterprise Service Management Framework Forum and Consortium, scheduled for Nov. 19-20.

Why it matters

The White House's Executive Order 13571 — Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Servicestates that "with advances in technology and service delivery systems in other sectors, the public's expectations of the government have continued to rise. The government must keep pace with and even exceed those expectations."

The 2011 order references a 1993 measure that called for agencies to establish service standards and methods of measuring performance. Since then, new cloud computing options, expanded website and mobile capabilities, and improved identity management have expanded what's possible.

5 steps to better CRM

Pierre Hulsebus, manager of the customer relationship management practice at Echelbarger, Himebaugh, Tamm and Co., shared these tips on the firm's blog.

1. Establish a sensible vision for the future. Customer relationship management is about more than implementing a technology. It should be seen as a means for making customer service more efficient.

2. Let the management team lead the way. Managers and leaders should be at the forefront of implementing and using new CRM methods.

3. Be open to customer feedback. And don't assume you know what the customer wants before he or she tells you.

4. Get the big picture. Imagine the steps your customers have to go through and identify possible inefficiencies.

5. Have a road map but stay flexible. "Realize that improving your customer relationships is not a destination — it is a journey," Hulsebus wrote. "As customer needs change, so should your CRM strategic map."


"Government managers must learn from what is working in the private sector and apply these best practices to deliver services better, faster and at lower cost," the order states. "Such best practices include increasingly popular lower-cost, self-service options accessed by the Internet or mobile phone and improved processes that deliver services faster and more responsively, reducing the overall need for customer inquiries and complaints."

Whether the executive order is the proverbial chicken or egg is unclear, however. Wayne Bobby, vice president of industry solutions at Oracle, said people already expect to be a click or tweet away from the government.

They want to "know what the government's doing in any step along the way as it relates to information that impacts a citizen, cases that may impact a citizen," Bobby said. "So you've got an increased level of demand for transparency from citizens with their government."

The fundamentals

"The classic definition of CRM...is that it was an application that allowed an organization, like the federal government or a business, to really manage all aspects of their interactions with their customers," said Dan Burton, a senior vice president at Saleforce.com.

Enter cloud-based services. As a pioneer of the software-as-a-service model, Salesforce.com has become a major player in the government cloud market. The company supplies CRM support to more than 550 federal, state and local agencies, including the General Services Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Census Bureau.

Burton said that before the cloud option made its way into the government, CRM implementation was a longer and costlier process.

But when cloud-based systems began popping up, he added, "classic CRM, which occurred through in-house systems, suddenly was available to anyone with an Internet connection, and because of that, all of the roadblocks associated with legacy IT CRM solutions — like spending a lot of money to buy licenses upfront, having to establish huge data centers and server farms to manage all of your information, taking years to customize and build up CRM solutions — all of those challenges went away."

Burton said a prime example of the new approach to CRM happened in 2008, when Bernie Madoff's now infamous Ponzi scheme was uncovered. The Securities and Exchange Commission was inundated with telephone calls with tips, questions and complaints from victims.

"The SEC simply could not keep up. They could not manage all of these calls that were coming in," Burton said. "They had a very slow, unreliable system. It wasn't integrated into any of their other applications.... There wasn't any way to spot trends or see what people were asking about and get ahead of all the questions."

SEC used Salesforce.com services to integrate records of all those phone calls and added performance metrics to gauge how well those services were fielded. Burton said efficiency increased significantly.

The hurdles

Those broadly integrated datasets bring new privacy and security concerns, which the government's forthcoming Health Insurance Marketplace has highlighted. The marketplace, available at HealthCare.gov, is a key component of the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

At a congressional hearing in July, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the Data Services Hub, which supports the exchange of applicants' information between federal agencies and state-based health insurance exchanges, will be ready and secure for enrollment by Oct. 1. Her testimony did not quell legislators' concerns.

"I believe that the hub has a bull's eye on it and that the potential for it being hacked is great," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements Subcommittee.

Ensuring the security of identity management systems is essential to CRM. Accordingly, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Postal Service and other agencies are creating a Federal Cloud Credential Exchange that could bolster agency-specific and governmentwide CRM projects by allowing people to use third-party credentials to access federal resources online.

NIST Senior Privacy Policy Adviser Naomi Lefkovitz, for example, previously told FCW that FCCX could help the federal government reduce costs while eliminating the need for users to maintain separate logins for each agency site. "Those are really the efficiencies — and the good customer experience — we are looking for," she said.

Nevertheless, there are cultural hurdles that come with any technology implementation in government.

"I think…there are many people who are still concerned about cloud computing," Burton said. They are used to working with stand-alone IT systems, so there is a need for "training and changing the culture around transparency of information [and] access to data on any device."

Next steps: CRM gets personal

Although individual agencies have embraced customer relationship management to varying degrees for their own missions, two broader government efforts rely heavily on CRM.

On Oct. 1, HealthCare.gov is scheduled to begin allowing people across the country to compare plans and register for health insurance. The program requires the secure transfer of personal data between federal agencies and state-run systems.

And the General Services Administration is personalizing USA.gov. Project MyUSA seeks to provide "a single account that citizens can use to sign into any government website, giving them control of how government interacts with them and their information."

GSA officials declined to comment on the project's CRM systems at this early stage of building, but the project is being developed openly at the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies' GitHub repository.


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